Homeschool Gadgets: An Investment in Your Future or a Waste of Money?

You are at the educational supplies store or homeschool curriculum fair and see a fancy teaching gadget on display. Yes, it is cute. It may even be on sale, but will it pay for itself in lessons learned or in time saved, or is it destined to become a liability in storage space?

Not every gadget or tool needs to be purchased to teach the subjects you desire your students to learn. Some items can be replicated inexpensively at home from “found” materials — and then discarded Guilt-Free after they have fulfilled their purpose. We made a few with enough care to be able to use them over and over and have kept them for many years. Others can be done without entirely. I once purchased a plastic board covered with tiny pegs that was supposed to illustrate geometric figures when you stretched rubber bands around the pegs. However, only certain shapes could be accurately portrayed, making even my small investment disappointing.

It is also wise to consider storage when purchasing extras for your homeschool. I opted for the world globe printed on a beach ball — perfect roundness was not necessary for us to understand geography, but the deflating capability made storage very easy.

Mail-order catalogs were a great source of ideas for make-it-yourself learning aids. We “borrowed” ideas for items that we would probably not have used more than once. Sometimes just examining the catalog photo and description were enough to illustrate the principle and give my students a basic understanding of the concept. Other times we purchased an item (such as the wooden set of Cuisenaire rods), knowing that it would pay for itself many times over in multiple uses.

I purchased a gadget that held 5 pieces of chalk in evenly spaced wire brackets for drawing parallel lines on a chalkboard. I drew lines for penmanship, musical staffs, and graphing grids for math. I turned my chalkboard into “graph paper” to tame the wayward numbers in long division or multiplication problems: one digit per box clarifies even the poorest handwriting. (My chalk-holder has been passed on to another homeschool family so I cannot prove this, but I think it may also be possible to insert thin white board markers into the wires for use on today’s ubiquitous white boards.)

I made my own geometric shapes (squares, triangles, pentagons, hexagons) out of old file folders for constructing 3-D figures. I made all the shapes to the same dimensions (2″ sides), and the various shapes could be fitted together for very interesting structures. I included an extra 1/4″ tab-strip on each edge, and we used tiny orthodontic rubber bands to link the pieces together, but the pieces could also be glued or taped together for permanence. I saw this idea in a curriculum catalog at a time when we could not spare the money for many extras. My husband had removed a stack of slightly worn file folders from a wastebasket at work, thinking I may be able to use them for something. My oldest student was barely into geometry and angles but got a sneak-peak at how to use compass, protractor, and straight edge to construct our wonderful new learning aids. Both students had great fun assembling 3-D models of geometric solids, which gave them a boost in understanding volume and geometry as those lessons came around.

I purchased inexpensive math manipulatives by buying sugar cubes to use in illustrating volume. We kept them on a jellyroll pan to contain the inevitable crumbs and stacked the cubes to count how many units/rows/layers it took to make a larger block. We also effectively illustrated multiplication and division by grouping the sugar cubes into rows to show 3 rows of 5 sugar cubes was equal to 5 rows of 3 sugar cubes, and both totaled 15 sugar cubes. A few hundred sugar cubes were purchased for a very small price, enabling the children to build perfect mathematical squares and cubes and study the multiplication facts with their hands as well as with their eyes. Numbers on a times-table chart were much more meaningful after they had proved the facts themselves. We worked with the sugar cubes carefully to avoid unnecessary breakage and crumbling, and were able to reuse them many times.

Educational games are a spending temptation for nearly every Mom I know. However, since many of them tend to be rather expensive, exert your self-control and go for the ones that will teach more than one concept. A game that does not have a “fun” element to it will probably not be played with very often, sliding it into the liability category. Try not to allow your game collection to sit idly on the shelf once the age limit or skill level has been passed by your students. Challenge them to create new rules for the game or find new ways to use the game’s equipment to match their new skill levels. Pre-reading games such as Candy Land can be adapted for math skills (see Alternate Methods for Teaching Math for more ideas).

The biggest consideration for buying educational gadgets, reference books, and homeschool materials is: Does this have more than one function? If it is usable for only one thing (especially if that is a very insignificant function), perhaps your hard-earned money would be better spent elsewhere. If the item will be used for multiple tasks over a long period of time, it is probably a wise investment.

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